Tales From the Darkside Season 1 (DVD)
Member Name: Jake Speed
Tales From the Darkside Season 1 (DVD)
Advantages: Likeable cultish eighties horror series
Disadvantages: Very low-budget, doesn't have the original music
"Man lives in the sunlit world of what he believes to be reality. But there is, unseen by most, an underworld, a place that is just as real but not as brightly lit . . . a DARKSIDE!" Tales From the Darkside was an inconsistent sometimes terrible but strangely endearing low-budget horror fantasy anthology series (somewhat in the vein of The Twilight Zone or Night Gallery) and ran from 1984 to 1988. You get the standard mix of ghost stories, science fiction, fear of technology stories, a few (mostly unfunny) comic episodes. It was created by George A Romero in the wake of the surprising success of his horror compendium Creepshow in 1982 but despite the intent to make a companion television series to that film in the spirit of EC Horror Comics, Tales From the Darkside is actually a lot less colourful, tongue-in-cheek and far more subdued, often playing like a cheapjack American version of Hammer House of Mystery & Suspense. This is one of the cheapest looking television shows I have ever seen (entire episodes often play out in one or two fake looking rooms) but the bargain basement homemade aura is not entirely without a certain strange late night anachronistic charm and Tales From the Darkside is often (but not always) more enjoyable and interesting than I had expected it to be. There are some stories here by Romero, Harlan Ellison and Stephen King and a smattering of relatively familiar faces and names that you might recognise. Danny Aiello, Tom Noonan, Brent Spiner, Jessica Harper, Bud Cort, Christian Slater, Bruce Davison, Tippi Hedren, Carol Kane, Lou Jacobi, Justine Bateman. Although Tales From the Darkside is not terribly well known and was rather overshadowed in the end by the enjoyably kitsch and far more lavish HBO series Tales From the Crypt, the show was popular enough to run to four seasons and 89 episodes and developed a modest cult following in North America through syndication - even getting a decent enough spin-off feature film in 1990. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Tales From the Darkside though is that it outlasted two other fantasy anthology shows that arrived on the scene around the same time with much more hype and money at their disposal. The underwhelming eighties Twilight Zone revamp and Steven Spielberg's pompous and saccharine Amazing Stories. Both the new Twilight Zone and Amazing Stories were swiftly cancelled within two years while Tales From the Darkside (admittedly helped by the fact that it clearly didn't cost a fortune to produce) managed to last for four (five if you count the 1983 pilot) before it more or less morphed into another horror fantasy anthology series by the same production company named Monsters.
There are 23 episodes (an episode of Tales From the Darkside runs to about 25 minutes) in the first season but we begin with the pilot, which is arguably the best thing in the collection. Trick or Treat was written by George A Romero and directed by Bob Balaban. Gideon Hackles (Bernard Hughes) is a Scrooge fashion mutton chopped old miser and miserable human being who takes remarkable pleasure from keeping the inhabitants of a rural valley community mired deep in desperate hopeless debt to him. "I never overcharge, I never cheat, but I expect to collect every penny that's due me. That's the secret of my success!" Gideon keeps a stash of IOUs in his large ramshackle house and the highlight of his year is Halloween because of the mean spirited game he plays on that date. Each Halloween, Gideon gleefully invites children from the community to search his house for the stash of IOUs. Should they ever find them they will have the debts of their parents wiped away. However, during the duration of the search, the house will be plunged into darkness and the terrified children must run a gauntlet of spooky booby traps and Halloween themed animatronic devices and scares designed by the old git. Gideon takes great delight in scaring the children witless until they inevitably run whimpering from the house sans the IOUs and cherished financial salvation for their family. This Halloween Gideon has invited young Billy Kimble (Knowl Johnson) to participate in his annual fright fest - knowing full well that Billy's father Atticus (Joe Ponazecki) will lose his farm if Billy doesn't find the IOUs. But Billy proves to be braver and more resourceful than Gideon expected and - this being Halloween - there really is something strange in the air tonight. Trick or Treat is a lot of fun and makes you wish Romero had done a lot more writing on this show. One of the biggest disappointments for me with Tales From the Darkside Season One was the fact that Romero doesn't direct any of these and this was his only writing contribution. Understandably, given that this is the pilot and needed to make an impression, this one feels like a more elaborate production than much of what follows and actually has a full cast (later episodes will practically revolve around one or two people). Hughes is enjoyably cantankerous and mean as Gideon and there is a wonderful scene near the start where he has a meeting with his accountants. I like the spooky ticking clocks in his house and the eerie aura that is developed too. The ending is rather predictable but doesn't detract from what is a pleasing first introduction to the series.
The New Man was written by Mark Durand and directed by Frank De Palma. This is not nearly so strong as Romero's opener although the basic premise is very Twilight Zone (I believe this tale first appeared in a Twilight Zone magazine or something). We are immediately aware here too of how threadbare this series is often going to be from a visual perspective. The New Man consists of two or three rooms (that are obviously very cheap wobbly sets) and is rather flat both in terms of its conception and acting. Alan Coombs (Vic Tayback) is a stressed out nine to five stiff finishing another busy and wearisome day in his tedious office job. A small boy (played by Chris Herbert) walks in and acts as if he knows Alan very well, even asking to be taken home. Alan has never seen the boy before in his life so as you can imagine is rather gobsmacked when the child informs him he is his son Jerry. Alan knows for a fact that he doesn't have a son named Jerry but he is a recovering alcoholic. Could he have forgotten in his alcoholic dazes, his memory shot to pieces? Things become even stranger when he takes Jerry home to clear the matter up and his wife Sharon (Kelly Jean Peters) greets the child as their son and bemoans Alan for being so rude and distant to Jerry. Alan is still convinced though that Jerry is an imposter and maintains his cold and suspicious attitude towards the boy. It is mildly intriguing at first but I suspect viewers will leave The New Man wondering quite what the point of it was and scratching their heads somewhat at the twist ending (which serves to completely undercut what we've just watched). I suppose the fact that the central character is an alcoholic does supply some ambiguity and allow the viewer to make up their own mind about what he might or might not be imagining but the coda doesn't make a huge amount of sense when you think about it afterwards. Acting duties mostly fall on Vic Tayback (a veteran televison actor who appeared in everything from the original Star Trek series to TJ Hooker) as our puzzled central protagonist. He's ok if a bit ripe in the scenes where Alan battles the bottle and shouts a lot. I found The New Man relatively interesting myself but this is not an episode that will win the series any new fans I suspect.
Better is the next episode - I'll Give You a Million. This was written by Mark Durand & David Spiel and directed by John Harrison. This one revolves around two shameless and ruthless businessmen who are very old men now but have never lost their competitive streak and love of money and have a most unsual wager between themselves. Duncan (Keenan Wynn) offers Jack (George Petrie) one million dollars in exchange for his eternal soul. Jack accepts the wager and regards it to be easy money because he is an atheist and doesn't believe in souls anyway. Will he live (or rather die) to regret this? I quite enjoyed this one mostly for the performances of Wynn and Petrie who both seem to be having fun as these dubious and crooked millionaires. They are a bit like those two scheming old men in the John Landis comedy Trading Places. Wynn in particular brings some wild eccentricity to the part with his nutty sideburns and mad eyes. There are a couple of twists here (one of which I didn't see coming so that was nice at least to be surprised in one of these anthology marathons) and this has a vague Creepshow meets The Twilight Zone atmosphere that works ok. Criticisms? Maybe the last twist feels slightly tacked on and unnecessary (and you feel like you expected it too) and the make-up effects here are strangely variable and not always convincing. One would think that even without a huge amount of money at their disposal that Laurel Entertainment (the producers of Tales From the Darkside) would have more than enough experience from the films they made with Romero and ample contacts in the horror industry to always ensure the make-up was of the highest standard. The premise of this episode is hardly original and reminded me somewhat of elements of the Twilight Zone story Printer's Devil but this is certainly not a bad entry in this sometimes eccentric and always low-rent series.
Not so good is Pain Killer - written by Haskell Barkin and directed by Armand Mastroianni. This is a very forgettable episode and one that you struggle to remember even after you have seen it. It also seems to share a particular twist theme from the previous episode although through the course of this series (and horror fantasy anthology shows in general) you will get used to the same motifs and themes being wheeled out, dusted off and presented again and again. Harvey Turman (Lou Jacobi) is a put upon husband who bickers with his wife Nadine (Peggy Cass) and suffers from terrible back pain that he can't seem to ever rid himself of. However, a visit to the mysterious Dr Roebuck (Farley Granger) soon cures his ailment. But at what cost? This one starts off very sitcom with acid dripped banter between Harvey and his wife. I like Lou Jacobi (he was in the transvestite segment of Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex) but I'm not sure I really want a Lou Jacobi sitcom when I watch an episode of a series called Tales From the Darkside. Things improve with the introduction of a mid story twist and Farley Granger (who is the best thing here) as Roebuck but it still doesn't amount to anything terribly memorable. Next is The Odds, written and directed by James Sadwith and one of the very best episodes here I think. Bookie Tom Vale (Danny Aiello) prides himself on never turning down a bet. "I've never been cheated, I've never been broken. I'm still the best..." It's a sweltering day in the city and in the run down bar he works from, Tommy receives a visit from a mysterious man (played by Tom Noonan) who places $500 on a horse that isn't fancied at all. The bet comes in though - as do all the others he makes. This is the luckiest gambler in the world and he's intent on taking Tommy (who lest we forget never refuses a bet) to the cleaners as if he has a grudge against him. Who is this outrageously successful gambler and why is he so obsessed with Tommy? To reveal any more more about the story would be to give one of the twists away but I enjoyed this one a lot. It devolves into a battle of wits between the two men with a nice final confrontation and resolution. This is again more Twilight Zone-esque than horror and gains an extra boost from the performances of Aiello (who is, let's be honest, far too good to be in an episode of Tales From the Darkside) and Tom Noonan. I like the way here that it isn't completely apparent for much of the story who is the villain and who we are supposed to be sympathetic towards out of the two men. A bit of both in each. We have to decide for ourselves and neither are angels. The clapped out bar setting where a sweat caked Aiello sits doing his business feels much more authentic than some of the wobbly one or two room sets in the series and makes a good backdrop. The Odds is a nicely acted and satisfying episode and gets a thumbs up.
From the sublime (as far as Tales From the Darkside becomes sublime) to the ridiculous with Mookie and Pookie, a very eccentric episode written by Dan Kleinman and directed by Timna Ramon. Mookie and Pookie revolves around teenage twins Susan 'Pookie' Anderson (Justine Bateman) and Kevin 'Mookie' Anderson (Ron Asher). Kevin, I mean Mookie, is not very well and asks Pookie to finish his cherished computer programme if anything happens to him. He dies and so the distraught Pookie continues his work (the eighties computer equipment is highly comical of course to modern eyes I suppose), soon becoming obsessed with the computer programme to the point where she never leaves the house and her parents (played by Alfred Hitchcock star Tippi Hedren and George Sims respectively) become worried about their hermit computer obsessed daughter. It transpires though that the late Mookie is still with them but his consciousness has somehow been transplanted into the computer. Okey dokey. Pookie has a battle on her hands now because her father doesn't believe a word of this nonsense and wants to unplug the computer once and for all. Computers are for playing scrabble in his book. Anything else is just silly. Even by the standards of anthology shows this is a very daft episode and not very good. Justine Bateman is a cutie here but her tabula rasa I'm just here for the cheque and have absolutely no idea what I'm even acting in approach hardly helps the episode. Mookie and Pookie is worth watching once just for the eighties ambience and pure eccentricity of the plot but it's not something you'll find yourself ever feeling the need to return to. Slippage was written by Mark Durand and directed Michael Gornick. This is not bad but very (perhaps too) reminiscent of a Twilight Episode called And When the Sky was Opened - which is of course vastly superior on every level. Richard Hall (David Patrick Kelly) is a design artist who gradually begins to realise he is "slipping" from existence. His boss Mr Blake (David Lipman) can't find his pay cheque, Hall begins to lose his documents and portfolios and then loses out on a job because they have no record of him ever applying in the first place! He is being erased from existence to the point where even his own mother has no idea who he is. Very strange. Slippage is ok I think although I feel like I've seen this premise more than once before in these types of shows. It's always mildly interesting though despite the deja vu although the very sedate performance by Kelly never feels very convincing. He'd be more emotional in the end surely? They establish early on that the character is something of a wimp and doesn't ever kick up a fuss about anything but you'd think that he might be a bit more energised at the prospect of fading from existence. Kelly by the way was famously the weasel villain Sully in the Arnold Schwarzenegger eighties action classic Commando. "You're funny Sully, I like you. That's why I'm going to kill you last!" Strange to see him in a sympathetic part if you only know him from that film.
Next is Inside the Closet, the most overt horror episode here and probably the creepiest. It was written by Michael McDowell and directed by Romero's long time friend and make-up expert Tom Savini. Graduate student Gail Aynsley (Roberta Weiss) rents a room in the large house of the serious and distinguished veterinary scientist Dr Fenner (Fritz Weaver). The room she rents used to belong to Fenner's daughter and it contains a tiny closet that soon begins to pique the curiosity and fear of Gail. Each night she seems to hear scratching noises and feel as if someone has been in the room. Her suspicion turns towards the closet which she comes to believe hides some sort of terrible secret. This is an effective episode that is well acted by the two leads (Fritz Weaver was a Twilight Zone veteran and had appeared in films like Marathon Man) and is genuinely eerie and compelling at times. Tales From the Darkside is strangely lacking in monsters and creatures for a horror show but you do get one here and the make-up effects are nicely done as you would expect from a segment directed by Tom Savini. Savini does a good job here with his direction, building the tension and never revealing anything too soon. Tales From the Darkside is not a terribly frightening show but this is certainly as scary as this first season gets. The approach of Savini is more earnest than others and he eschews irony and any attempt to be tongue-in-cheek. This actually reminds me very much of Night Gallery in terms of its atmosphere and approach. Inside the Closet is one of the stronger episodes in the collection and worth watching.
The next episode is also a solid enough one thanks primarily to the fact that it adapts a Stephen King short story and has the dependable Bruce Davison playing the lead role. The Word Processor of the Gods was adapted by Michael McDowell and directed by Michael Gornick. Davison is Richard Hagstrom, a struggling writer who has an unhappy home life. His increasingly large wife Linda (Karen Shallo) is constantly nagging and does nothing but eat while his slacker son Seth (Patrick Piccininni) is a disrespectful slob who drives Richard bonkers by playing his electric guitar all day at loud volumes. One day Richard receives a special gift from his beloved late computer whizz kid nephew Jonathan (Jon Matthews). Jonathan was like the son he'd always wanted and he also regrets the fact that he never married Jonathan's mother Belinda (Miranda Beeson). The gift from Jonathan is a very battered and old looking Word Processor. When Richard uses the computer to do some writing in his basement office he soon realises it has unique powers. Anything he types into the computer becomes real. What would happen if he pressed delete? The direction by Michael Gornick does not evoke memories of Stanley Kubrick and Davison aside the acting is nothing to write home about but The Word Processor of the Gods is a good simple wish fulfillment story with a slightly dark edge courtesy of Stephen King. The premise is yet again very Twilight Zone I think and makes this story very watchable. Davison is a help here and anchors the story as some dubious thesping unfolds around him. Next is my favourite episode I think and one that all Tales From the Darkside fans always remember. A Case of the Stubborns was written by James Houghton and directed by Jerry Smith. Ma Tolliver (Barbara Eda-Young) and her young son Jody (Christian Slater) sit down to breakfast in the kitchen one morning all dressed in black. They are mourning the death of Grandpa Titus Tolliver (Eddie Bracken) who died the previous day. However, there is a noise on the stairs and Grandpa suddenly shows up (in funeral makeup and his coffin clothes) for breakfast declaring himself to be famished. When they tell him that he's supposed to be dead he declares this to be absolute nonsense and insists there is nothing wrong with him at all. Grandpa soon begins to show signs of decay and stink the place out. Can Ma and Jody persuade him that he's dead? A Case of the Stubborns is great fun and injects a nice dose of black humour into the series. This segment is amusing and strangely touching too as Grandpa refuses to accept he is dead even when he starts to look like a zombie and attract flies! The pay off at the end is wonderful. Eddie Bracken is a hoot as the decaying Titus and a 15 year-old Christian Slater is really good too as his grandson Jody. It is Jody who comes up with a very clever solution to this strange problem. Look for future Star Trek: The Next Generation star (he played the android Data) Brent Spiner too here as a nutty Amish reverend.
Djinn, No Chaser was adapted by Haskell Barkin from a story by Harlan Ellison and directed by Shelley Levinson. Despite the Ellison link this is pretty much a waste of time. It's an episode that tries to be funny but just isn't at all. In Djinn, No Chaser, a couple named the Squires (played by Charles Levin and Colleen Camp) buy a lamp from a mysterious man and then get stuck with an annoying genie (played by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) who gradually wrecks their lives. There are no horror elements here and no ironic twist. If anything it feels like a showcase for Levin to do a nebbish comedy act for 25 minutes. I found this episode very boring to be honest and I'm not quite sure what the point of it was. I'm sure Ellison's original story must have been a lot better so the conception and heavy handed comic elements do rather all drag it down and make it very tiresome. You can usually tell very early on if an episode of Tales From the Darkside is going to be good and this is a stinker right from the start. This is notable only for the familiar cast really. Camp was in two Police Academy films and Abdul-Jabbar famously fought Bruce Lee in Game of Death. He's like a block of wood in this episode as he grapples with lines like "May the sweat of a thousand monkeys pollute your wretched veins!" Levin looks very familiar too and I recognised him from Ghostbusters and other bits and pieces. All a Clone by the Telephone was written by Haskell Barkin and directed by Frank De Palma. This one has a mildly interesting premise but eventually becomes just a little dull and interesting. Harry Anderson is Leon, a struggling television writer who hasn't had much work lately. He begins to have strange occurrences relating to his answering machine though. People tell them he has left them a message when he is convinced that he hasn't. It soon begins to have an adverse effect on his life. Does he have a clone from an alternate reality? Has the answering machine taken on a life of its own? I quite like the premise here (which again is very Rod Serling) but the conception again leaves something to be desired. Rather than construct a taut piece about fear of technology everything is very throwaway and played for laughs. A very middling episode on the whole as far as Tales From the Darkside Season One goes.
Next is In the Cards - written and directed by Ted Gershuny. This one is not so bad although yet another episode in the collection that doesn't really feel like a horror segment. Catherine (Dorothy Lyman) is a fake fortune teller who makes a decent living from her pseudo powers. She tends to give people happy predictions and readings and is a decent person despite not actually being able to do what she claims. Anyway, Catherine has a shock in store when her deck of cards keeps predicting death to her customers and then coming true. It transpires that she has been given a set of cursed cards and whatever she does she can't seem to get rid of them. The only solution is to pass the cards onto another fortune teller. Easier said than done. This isn't bad really. Not sure who Dorothy Lyman is but she's likeable enough (although her character is a fraud we sort of root for her anyway) and despite the fact that this is far from the most memorable episode here it is watchable and relatively interesting. Voodoo card capers are hardly new but I did find that this story held my attention and I was interested enough to want to see how it all turned out in the end. Anniversary Dinner was written by James Houghton and directed by John Strysik. You will see the twist coming a mile off here but it doesn't detract from what is an enjoyable episode. Sybil (Fredrica Duke) is hiking and camping in the countryside (you actually get some outdoor location work in this usually static tiny studio bound series!) with her boyfriend Mark (Michael Cedar) but they fall out because Mark is an oaf and makes some comments that Sybil is offended by and so they go their separate ways. Sybil finds assistance in the form of a kind old couple named Henry (Mario Roccuzzo) and Elinor (Alice Ghostley) Colander who live in a remote cottage. Henry actually brandishes his shotgun and tells Mark to hop it when he is rude to Sybil near their porch. They offer Sybil a hot meal and a bed for the night and as their 25th Wedding Anniversary is coming up they invite her to stay on a bit longer for the celebration. All seems well but the Colanders are hiding a terrible secret. This is Tales From the Darkside afterall not Terry and June. I like this episode and although I spotted the twist coming very early (a particular line by Henry tips you off) it's still fun and rather macabre in the end. Things take a strange turn here when Henry offers to show Sybil his "playroom" and it contains a Jacuzzi! Never accept an offer to get in a Jacuzzi by a man you don't know very well. That's my important safety tip for all women. The young actress playing Sybil is a bit wooden but Roccuzzo and Alice Ghostley are very good as the old couple. Anniversary Dinner is a good entry in this first season on the whole.
I struggled more with Snip, Snip, which was written by Howard Smith and Tom Allan and directed by Terence Cahalan. I didn't really ever quite get into this one to be honest despite the two famous leads. Abe North (Bud Cort) is a bit of loser who has found what he believes to be the perfect way to turn his life around. Black magic and the dark arts. Astrology and sorcery. Confident that he has won the lottery with his mystic powers he is gobsmacked to find out a woman named Anne (Carol Kane) had the winning numbers instead and goes to confront her and claim what is rightfully (or so he believes) his. Turns out that Ann is a hairdresser and there is far more to her than meets the eye. Snip, Snip has a decent twist at the end but the acting by Bud Cort in particular is too broad and frantic. Cort was famously in Harold & Maude and M*A*S*H as a young actor and became something of a cult star and very hot for a while. He aged awkwardly though and even by the time of a near fatal car smash in the early eighties (which made him look different) his acting career had fizzled out. He seems a bit too desperate here to do a funny turn and stand out although Carol Kane (who had a bit part in Annie Hall) is more measured and turns in a better performance. This tries to be a black comedy but is never really very amusing and so falls flat in the end. I wanted to like it much more than I actually did in the end. Answer Me was written by Michael McDowell and directed by Richard Friedman. This is sort of interesting and effective and sort of annoying at the same time. It takes place entirely in a couple of rooms on the floor of an apartment block (it could be a hotel I suppose but my impression was an apartment block) where a woman named Joan (Jean Marsh) is alone and driven bonkers by the constant ringing of the telephone next door. When she goes next door to confront the neighbour though the room is completely empty except for the ringing telephone. Things are about to get a lot spookier. The restrictive budgets and sets of this series force the producers to be more stripped down and careful about what stories they adapt and the two room and a corridor setting of Answer Me is a case in point. It works though and the episode builds up a good creepy atmosphere and sense of dread with a decent enough ending. The problem is that it only contains one solitary character and that character unfortunately is rather annoying. Jean Marsh (who is obviously British but has that irritating vague transatlantic accent) has to talk to herself a lot and is supposed to be self-deprecating and funny but she just gets on your nerves in the end. Answer Me has a scary central idea but the casting is a definite weakness.
The very frustrating and ultimately shallow The Tear Collector was written and directed by John Drimmer. This is an episode that flatters to deceive and ends up being disappointing. Prudence (Jessica Harper) is a woman who can't stop crying but just happens to meet a man named Ambrose (Victor Garber) who collects tears. Ambrose invites her to his house for therapy and each time she cries he collects her tears in a glass vial. He ends up paying her a lot of money for her tears which he keeps in a strange collection room that is pristine, white, sterile and vaguely futuristic. Sounds intriguing doesn't it? Sadly though this one never really gets beyond that set-up and does anything at all with the story. Why is Ambrose collecting the tears? I have no idea because they never say. In this case the ambiguity is a weakness. It's a shame because this episode looks good (it even has some - gasp! - exterior shots taken outside) and Jessica Harper (famous for Dario Argento's Suspiria and Woody Allen's Stardust Memories) has an interesting face and always holds your attention but ultimately this doesn't amount to an awful lot and remains frustratingly vague as if someone came up with a good premise but had no idea what to do with it. The Tear Collector is definitely a missed opportunity I think. The Madness Room was written by Thomas Epperson and directed by John Hayes. This is a good episode I think with a few nice twists at the end. Edward Osborne (Stuart Whitman) is a wealthy man who lives with his much younger wife Cathy (Therese Pare) in a huge remote mansion. One night a friend named Nick (Michael Fox) arrives and all they play on the Ouija board (as you do). They make apparent contact with a previous owner of the house who informs them about a secret room in the mansion known as "The Madness Room." In this secret room people will learn something about themselves according to legend but it takes its name because no one has ever stayed in there without going completely and totally mad. Anyway, they decide to investigate this room for themselves. You can see where this going very early on (characters in these shows should always be suspicious when they have a much younger wife and a younger man suddenly turns up out of the blue) but I think it's fun and the dependable Stuart Whitman is good value. This is hardly a classic but I did enjoy watching it. Once again this episode is very Hammer House of Mystery & Suspense.
If the Shoes Fit... was written and directed by Armand Mastroianni. This is one of the strangest episodes here but one that has the most going on underneath the surface. It's a political satire and stars Dick Shawn as Bo Gumbs, a colourful political candidate who believes that campaigning is all about showmanship and being positive and making people forget their problems. You have to make the "little people" believe everything will be better with you in charge even if you know it probably won't. As Bo prepares for a big forthcoming outdoor rally in his hotel room (this being Tales From the Darkside most of the episode of course takes place in a couple of rooms), a bellhop (played by John Zarchen) attends to his requests and hands him clothes. The clothes he gives Bo though are those of a circus clown and Bo soon realises he can't seem to remove them. So Bo ends up looking more and more ridiculous with oversized shoes, a red wig, red nose, etc, etc. This is not a horror episode at all but the bellhop seems a bit supernatural and the end is slightly unsettling and weird. Maybe it's a bit heavy handed but makes its point. Politicians are ridiculous people and might as well dress as circus clowns. Good performance by Dick Shawn here by the way lifts it all up a notch. Levitation is a decent one that I enjoyed for its use of magic. It was written by David Gerrold and directed by John Harrison. A youngster named Frank (played by Brad Cowgill) travels to see his favourite magician Kharma (Joe Turkel) at a small circus. But Kharma is terrible and only performs simple tricks that are easy to see through. The disappointed Frank heckles Kharma and demands that he perform his famous levitation trick. This wire free hypnosis trick was Kharma's greatest ever illusion but he doesn't perform it anymore because it once went horribly wrong. Will he give in and perform it again after all the abuse and goading from this obstreperous scamp? This is pretty good I think for a couple of reasons. The first is they actually have a fairly decent circus set that we see for ourselves. A mildly elaborate set in Tales From the Darkside! I nearly fainted. Second is Joe Turkel (the bartender from Kubrick's The Shining) as the morose and weary magician. He's great and the twist at the end is fun too. A good episode with some nice scenes involving Turkel performing magic tricks.
It All Comes Out in the Wash was written by Harvey Jacobs and directed by Frank De Palma. This is not a very memorable episode and never really goes anywhere terribly surprising. Carl Gropper (Vince Edwards) is a businessman with a guilty conscience who hears from a friend about an extraordinary service that might be able to help. The service is a Laundry owned by an enigmatic Chinese man named Chow Ting (James Hong). Chow Ting promises to "wash away" the sins of his customers and each time Gropper has his clothes washed he feels much better. No guilt or indecision. His life is much better. However, Chow Ting layed down a strict set of rules when he met Gropper (don't telephone, never ask how it works etc) and when Gropper starts to break some of them things take a turn for the worse. I can't say I found this episode very interesting and the premise is very last season Twilight Zone (when they had run out of stories). The only thing of note here is the presence of Hong who of course as everyone should know played Lo Pan in John Carpenter's fantastic Big Trouble in Litle China. It All Comes Out in the Wash is very forgettable overall. Next is Bigalow's Last Smoke. This was written by Michael McDowell and directed by Timna Ranon. I think it's one of the very best episodes here and again very Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense. Frank Bigalow (Richard Romanus) wakes up in his apartment and groggily goes to make some coffee. The television is just static for some reason but he ignores it and looks for his cigarettes as he is a heavy smoker. He can't find them though and soon realises something strange is going on. There are bars on the windows and doors of his apartment that prevent him from leaving and artificial light outside gives the impression of daylight. A television monitor comes on and a man (played by Sam Anderson) tells Bigalow that he is now a prisoner in a "simulacrum" of his own apartment. He will not be allowed to leave until he has given up smoking. Bigalow laughs and goes to smoke but each time he does an unbearable electronic noise and discombobulating lights blaze through the room causing him great distress. A battle of wits between the nicotine starved Bigalow and the mystery man on the monitor begins. I liked Bigalow's Last Smoke. This one is quite gripping and you want to see what happens at the end. Love the final twist and the two actors here are solid enough. I think this one works because the basic premise immediately grabs your attention. Man wakes up and finds he is a prisoner in a mock-up of his own home. Good stuff.
This first season now closes with a couple of very forgettable stories. Grandma's Last Wish was written by Julie Selbo and directed by Warner Shook (that can't be a real name surely). Grandma (Jane Connell) is on her last legs and about to be shoved into a home against her will by her annoying family but is granted one last wish before she goes. What will she wish for? How about some payback against her dreadful relatives? This is one of those eccentric Tales From the Darkside episodes that isn't horror and isn't Twilight Zone-esque or Night Gallery-esque or anything esque. It's esque in a world of its own. One of those I have no idea what is going on or where they got this stupid story Tales From the Darkside episodes that doesn't make any sense. It's basically a series of comic pratfalls for Grandma's goofy family until the end twist (which is vaguely, and I mean vaguely, reminiscent of a classic Twilight Zone episode called The Masks). This is just too broad and stupid for its own good with terrible acting. Finally, we have The False Prophet, written by Jule Selbo and directed by Gerald Cotts. Cassie Pines (Ronnie Blakely) is on her way to Texas because of some astrological advice she received told her to go there. That's a good reason. I often up sticks and go on wild journeys after reading my horoscope in the paper. She stops off at a diner while waiting for the next connecting bus to arrive and finds it has an astrology machine that speaks. It sort of looks like a cross between a postbox and a photograph booth with a hint of Robby the Robot. Anyway, this machine eventually starts speaking to Cassie and starts giving her advice that might well be dubious. Never trust a talking astrology machine at a bus stop. That's my motto. The False Prophet is a disappointing end to the first season of Tales From the Darkside and doesn't really contribute much to the collection. Ronnie Blakely is a bit annoying and the astrology machine is risible.
I enjoyed investigating this first series myself but Tales From the Darkside is rather eccentric at times even by the standards of these types of shows and I think the cheapskate production values will probably put off general viewers and make this one purely for the anthology fantasy connoisseur. If you love Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, Tales From the Crypt, Hammer House of Mystery & Suspense - and have even been known to watch episodes of Monsters - then you will certainly want to investigate this series though. The wobbly Garth Marenghi titles with twangy music tip you off early that this is not going to be the expensive television series ever made but I think it's part of the threadbare charm of the series and I like Paul Sparer's theatrical opening and closing narrations too. "The dark side is always there, waiting for us to enter, waiting to enter us. Until next time, try to enjoy the daylight!" I enjoyed about half the episodes here so it had around a 50% strike rate for me but you should be warned that duff episodes of Tales From the Darkside are tough going. If a Twilight Zone or Night Gallery episode isn't very good you can still sort of find it interesting purely for the production values and design but Darkside doesn't have anything like that to fall back on if the story isn't any good.
The only thing you get here in the way of extras is a commentary by George A Romero on the pilot Trick or Treat. It wasn't even specially recorded either and sounds like a jumble of different old interviews shunted together. Still, Romero is always a warm and engaging presence and nice to listen to. Some more interviews or extras about the history of the series would certainly have been welcome though and it's a shame nothing of consequence was added to the DVD release. There are one two other reservations here that I must mention. First is the fact that the original music scores for the episodes are not present on this collection because of a rights issue (presumably it was decided that as Tales From the Darkside was such a cultish show it wasn't worth paying for them to be on the DVD). I have never seen Tales From the Darkside on television so I don't know how much of a loss this is but I gather that fans of the series feel the original music was a big part of the atmosphere. The music used for the series here is unremarkable but serviceable enough. The second reservation is that the series doesn't look especially pristine even on DVD. You feel like you are watching something on video at times. These issues aside, I did quite like Tales From the Darkside and would certainly watch the other three seasons in the future. At the time of writing you can buy Tales From the Darkside Season One for about ten pounds.
Summary: Decent fun